Creating a Sustainable Future

Photo: Toni Bird

This year has brought catastrophic weather events around the world, including another record-breaking fire season here in California. The extreme weather has underlined the urgency of the climate crisis, which has the potential to transform not only our planet, but also the health and well-being of humanity. 

Avoiding the worst outcomes requires both changing our behaviors and deploying new technological solutions. At Stanford, we’re focusing our resources to accomplish both. 

First, we’re committed to advancing global efforts to create a sustainable future through our mission of research and teaching. To that end, in May 2020 we announced the formation of a new Stanford school focused on climate and sustainability. While Stanford experts have conducted important sustainability research for many years, the scale and time frame of the crisis demand a more integrated approach. 

The new school will amplify research and accelerate impact across multiple areas of scholarship, including the natural sciences, engineering, and the social sciences and humanities. It will bring together and expand on the School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences; Hopkins Marine Station facilities; and the department of civil and environmental engineering (as a joint department with the School of Engineering), as well as new hires and faculty from other Stanford schools.

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy will also join the school, creating an open door for faculty and students across the entire university to engage in climate and sustainability scholarship. Those institutes will lead broad cross-cutting themes, such as food and water security and carbon removal. They will be complemented by a new Sustainable Societies initiative that will tackle parallel interdisciplinary themes, such as sustainable urban societies and environmental justice. 

‘As our world contends with the changing climate, we will need the best minds from across disciplines to work together to find solutions.’

At the heart of the school will be a sustainability accelerator aimed at leveraging knowledge to create policy and technology solutions. The accelerator will support external partnerships and give researchers access to shared equipment, expert staff, specialized training and funding.

In anticipation of the school’s launch in fall 2022, we are working to finalize its academic departments and thematic initiatives. We will also begin a search for a dean, hire a director for the sustainability accelerator, commence faculty cluster hires, and complete a naming process for the school.

Second, in addition to launching the new school, we continue to improve sustainability across our internal operations, building on the transformation of our power production system initiated a decade ago. For example, we recently undertook a major solar energy initiative, and when the second of our two new solar plants comes online in 2022, will produce enough renewable electricity to equal the university’s annual electricity consumption.

We’ve also launched a multiyear effort to reduce Stanford’s Scope 3 emissions—the indirect emissions generated by activities like travel, investments, and producing and transporting food and goods. Our mitigation efforts will bring us closer to our ultimate goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from our operations and endowment by 2050.

Alongside these efforts, Stanford recently became the first U.S. college or university to issue bonds carrying dual climate and sustainability designations. These bonds will finance projects that will help us achieve our sustainability goals, curb our carbon footprint, and advance diversity, equity and inclusion. Qualifying for this emerging asset class is a significant recognition of Stanford’s sustainability and social responsibility efforts. 

As our world contends with the changing climate, we will need the best minds from across disciplines to work together to find solutions and avoid the worst outcomes. While the scale of the crisis is daunting, I have hope for what we can achieve by focusing our attention and resources on building a more sustainable future.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne is the president of Stanford University.